Alma visits Potosi Mines in Bolivia

The Inca Empire knew about the vast amounts of silver reserves in the mountain named Potosí but never touched it. Inca Huayna Capac was told by a foreboding voice to not mine the mountain, and he heeded the warning. The Spanish, however, had other plans – bringing about one of the deadliest and cruellest chapters of the Spanish conquest.

It is estimated that between 1545 and 1825, more than eight million indigenous and African slaves died in the Potosí mines. Put another way, it is commonly said that over the 300 year span of the mining of Potosí, around 75 slaves died each day. There are even development economists who suggest that the vicious impact of Potosí on the indigenous population in today’s Bolivia and Peru may explain the difference in poverty levels between two similar Peruvian provinces: Acomayo and Calca. Acomayo, though situated 1,115 km (693 miles) away from Potosí, was within the territory where all indigenous men aged 18 and older were forced to work in the mines as slaves. Calca was just outside of this territory. Today Calca has a lower rate of extreme poverty compared to Acomayo.

At this moment, Potosí is one of Bolivia ́s poorest regions. The regions inhabitants, however, are working to change that. Potosí is one of three regions that make up the Quechua Nation, and CENAQ (The Board of Education of the Quechua Nation) is in charge of developing and implementing their curriculum adapted for the Quechua culture.

Trinidad is from a small rural community in Potosí and is one of the elected heads of CENAQ. Though she never studied in secondary school and only learned Spanish as an adult, she is one of the most well-spoken and recognized leaders of the autonomous Quechua Nation. I had the opportunity to visit various Quechua-speaking communities with Trinidad and other members of CENAQ, and in each community meeting I was more and more impressed with the warm reception Trinidad received and with the clarity and determination with which Trinidad explained the educational needs of the communities and the plans in place to address them.

The goal of any NGO should be to eventually not be needed. By helping people like Trinidad and organizations like CENAQ to realize the implementation of their own strategies for their own people, we can hopefully make that a reality in the future.

Ian McGroaty

Program Director

3089173774_d9d04558f9_bCerro de Potosi (source: